Big Backpacks

5 07 2017

bigbackpacks

One of the important things that needs to concern us with regards to short-term missions is the perception that we give to those we are ministering. Most people just naturally tend towards ethnocentricity, so it is easy for one to see the faults of and make fun of the stereotypes of other cultures while completely ignoring one’s own. As believers, we need to be acutely aware of our own culture’s shortcomings and stereotypes in order to be a better witness of the gospel.

One of the stereotypes that many American mission teams live up to all too often is that we are loud and obnoxious in a sarcastic, insider-joking way. We served as missionaries in a country that saw a lot of tourists come through, and it was very interesting to hear from the locals their different stereotypes for each country. Every once in a while, we would head to the big city to eat at a touristy restaurant, and my wife and I would jokingly try to guess the nationalities of the different groups that came through based upon their behavior. It was surprisingly easy. With this in mind, I try to remind all of my short-term teams to not be loud and laugh together as a group leaving our national friends out. I, also, had to learn that not very many nationalities understand sarcasm. There is not even a word in Swahili for sarcasm making it very difficult for one like me that has the spiritual gift of sarcasm. While in East Africa, I would make what I thought was the funniest joke ever and nobody would laugh because it was sarcastic. I finally figured out that they love jokes that we would consider silly or corny.

All over the world, especially in developing countries, there is a perception that Americans are filthy rich. Considering the finances of people in developing countries, we do have a lot of money. While in Tanzania, I regularly had in my wallet the average working man’s yearly salary, but what many Tanzania’s did not understand is that I spent that amount every month on just gas for my vehicle to get to their villages. There is a difference between having money and being filthy rich. Many nationals of developing countries have the perception that all Americans are Bill Gates rich. That perception is simply a reality, but it is a reality that can do harm to the gospel. There are many people that might “pray to receive Christ” simply because of what they might get in material blessings from the American missionary. Because of this very real possibility, our short-term teams need to be extremely careful in how we handle finances and material possessions while on the field.

5 Simple Things Short-Term Mission Team Members Can Do To Better Handle Finances And Material Possessions While On The Field…

  1. Lose the Big Backpacks – Most of us can vividly picture the short-term team walking into the dusty village in their Chacos, carrying their Nalgene water bottle, and lugging a backpack full of everything. Most of these backpacks contain more food in one of them than the entire village. In the backpack, including snacks, are your Bible, devotional book, journal, camera, extra water bottles, sunscreen, headphones, every cable imaginable, an entire medicine cabinet, passport, 23 packets of gum, GoPro video camera, etc. The vast majority of these things are never needed. In every village that I have ever been to I have always found bottled water and plenty to eat. I usually bring my phone that has a camera and my Bible on it, and I carry my passport in a zippered pocket in a plastic baggie to keep my sweat off of it. Instead of passing out my overly processed food as the wealthy benefactor, I eat the food that they give me and not just a small mouthful as a token. We need to think about the perception that we are giving to people with our backpacks full of wealth. In Matthew 10:10 Jesus said, “Don’t take a traveling bag for the road…” This, of course, is not law for us, but it might be a good principle.
  2. Only One Camera – Choose the best photographer in your group, and only let them take the big camera. There will be times where individuals will get to know someone and want to take a picture together with their phone, and this is completely appropriate. Most people now, even in the remotest villages, will reciprocate with their own smart phone camera! What I am talking about, though, is the photographic documenting of the trip. If three or four people walk into the front yard of someone’s home with their big cameras and just start taking pictures of everything, including their children, this can be highly offensive. Only allow one person to do this and only after they have received permission. Most times we do not even think about the roles being reversed. What if someone walked into your home and started immediately taking pictures of the crosses on your wall or the Bible on your shelf or your messy kitchen or your children?
  3. Generous Church Giving – Many short-term mission teams get the life-changing opportunity to experience a local church service. Inevitably, the time for offering comes around, and every head awkwardly turns towards the leader wondering what to do. Of course, by that time it is too late. I always try to remember to tell my team members to give. My general rule of thumb is $10-$20. In most cases this is a generous gift for the church, but not too much. I always ask each team member to pray about their gift, and if God impresses them to give more, they are welcome to do so.
  4. Extra Gifts – It is not uncommon for two things to happen during a mission trip: 1. a team member gets asked by a national for a financial gift and 2. a team member feels the need to give financially to a national. In Tanzania it is culturally appropriate to ask someone else for money. If I was ever in dire straights, as an American, I would find it difficult to even ask my best friend or family for money! Therefore, when someone in Tanzania asked me for money, at first it was difficult to not get offended. I had to learn that it is also culturally alright to say no when someone asked me. The difficulty comes when a compassionate short-term team member sees a great need that they could easily “fix” with a few bucks. This has great danger, though. We could meet that need, but what about the next one? And the next? Creating dependency is a very real possibility and detrimental to the long-term health of not only the individual but the society as a whole. If a team member is asked for a financial gift or feels the need to give one unsolicited, I would suggest that team member to first pray about it seeking the leadership of the Holy Spirit before immediately giving them the gift. They should then consult with the team leader and/or the long-term missionary and a trustworthy national partner, if available. Also, I always have my team members bring small gifts, like devotional books, t-shirts, bracelets, etc. to give to our translators or others who have rendered us some kind of service. I think these are better than cash gifts.
  5. Promises – While in Zambia one time, I met two young men in the market. I was able to share the gospel with them, and we began to talk about life in general. As I was preparing to leave, through the translator, I told them that they ought to come to America with me. What I meant by that statement was that I really liked those two guys. What they heard was a promise that I would take them to America with me. They literally began packing their things on the spot! This taught me that our words hold great weight with others. When we come as believers from America to another country, for whatever reasons, we come with authority in the eyes of many nationals. If we even hint that we are going to help them, they expect it and are hurt when we do not follow through.
  6. Souvenirs – Buying souvenirs is something that every team does and should do. We just should not do it excessively in front of the nationals that we are working with. When with nationals, I keep a small amount of money in my front pocket to purchase things like small souvenirs or other things. This way I am not pulling out a large stack of bills every time to buy a bottle of water. This would cause a bad perception and is potentially a safety issue. On every trip, I usually plan one time on the tail end to go somewhere the team can purchase all of their souvenirs by ourselves.




Christian Tourism

19 06 2017

christian_tourism

Every year, thousands of Christians go on “mission trips” to exotic locations all over the world. They love to come back touting big numbers of those that responded to a call to salvation, show off pictures of them loving on a kid in front of a mud hut, and bragging about the weird food they ate. The vast majority of these “mission teams” go to places that are already reached; that is, they have an indigenous church capable of making disciples of every person in the people group without the need for cross-cultural witnesses. For example, a number of years ago I flew to Honduras to go and work with a wonderful orphanage that our church has been partnered with for many years. The plane was full of mission teams! I could tell because everyone had team shirts on. According to the Joshua Project there is one people group in Honduras that is considered unreached, and that is a group of 1600 Muslim Turks. Now, I will clarify that our church continues to partner with the orphanage in Honduras, but it is our only partnership of its kind that is specifically not reaching an unreached people group.

What Is Missions?

We really need to understand what missions is in order to understand what a mission trip is and to differentiate it from Christian tourism. Missions is birthed out of Jesus’ commissioning statements, most popularly out of Matthew 28:19-20 where Jesus said that we are to go and make disciples of all ethne (people groups). Later we see the apostles, most notably Paul, flesh this out by going to people groups that had never heard the gospel and establishing indigenous, reproducing churches among them. Once the church was established, he would move on to the next people group knowing and trusting that the church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, was capable of reaching their own people. This is missions, pure and simple. If we do anything other than that, it may be good, but it is not missions. Caring for orphans is good and Biblical, but it is not strictly or technically missions. Going to a people group that is reached and doing VBS, sharing your testimony door-to-door, encouraging the existing church, discipling pastors, etc. is a lot of things good and Biblical, including ministry, evangelism, and discipleship, but not strictly missions.

Categorizing Our Trips

Every believer and every church ought to take time and evaluate what partnerships and trips they participate in by categorizing them by purpose. For instance, our trip to Honduras to work with the orphanage is called a mission trip, but in my mind, as a mission pastor, I know that this is a “ministry trip.” I might go to Kenya to train pastors as a mission trip, but I categorize that in my mind as a “discipleship trip.” This is an important exercise to work through because the priority should always be missions. Yes, other things are important, but the most critical thing is to make disciples of unreached people groups. If I only led my church to work with orphans, I would be leading my church to do good ministry but not missions. If I only went on one trip per year to train pastors in Kenya, I would still need to ask how I am making missions a priority in my life.

At this point, many people that are passionate about a particular ministry get upset because of the challenge that their ministry is not the critical priority. I am personally passionate about orphan and foster care. I have led our church to continue our work at and support of the orphanage in Honduras. We support foster care in our area and celebrate it publicly. We have an adoption fund at our church to help members offset the cost of adoptions. My family has personally adopted an orphan! I am passionate about this ministry, but I understand it is not the most important thing on planet earth. Getting the gospel to people groups that have no access to the gospel and seeing indigenous, reproducing churches planted among them is God’s priority, Jesus’ final command to us, and should be my burning desire.

The reason that I categorize what I do personally and what we do as a church is to make sure that my and our church’s priorities match up to God’s. As a church we certainly participate in orphan care, disaster relief, training pastors, etc. but these things come second to the mission of God.

The Tricky Part

You may be already thinking this, but can these good things like pastor training, disaster relief, or construction projects be one and the same with missions? The answer, of course, is yes. The key is long-term strategy. If the goal is indigenous, reproducing churches among unreached people groups, there are thousands of good, strategic ways to get there. A key thing to remember about long-term strategy, though, is that it should be generated from the field. This means that a cross-cultural missionary or a trustworthy national partner that has spent the time to research the people, learn the language and culture, and understands good missiology has developed the strategy. Problems come when well-intentioned churches and/or short-term teams dictate the strategy.

With all of this in mind, if I am leading a short-term team to do missions, I want know that whatever we do it is moving the cross-cultural missionary further down the road toward an indigenous, reproducing church. If the long-term, cross-cultural missionary or national partner determines that it would help them to have a team put a new roof on a church, I will bring a construction team. I should, as a caring Christian and mission pastor, question any strategy for accountability reasons, but in the end it is the call of those that will be there in the long run.

When determining mission trips versus just tourism or good works trips, the first thing that I am looking for is a long-term strategy to get to an indigenous, reproducing church. If a trip is not a part of that strategy, then it is not a mission trip.

Encouragement

If we can increase the longevity of our missionaries on the field, then we can increase the work to get to indigenous, reproducing churches. Another often neglected form of mission trips is “encouragement trips.” I certainly categorize these as mission trips! As stated before, to reach unreached people groups we have to have cross-cultural missionaries. The job of a missionary is difficult in the best of circumstances. The turnover rate is huge. These are people that are the vanguard of the greatest fight in history, and the front lines always have the highest casualty rates.

If we believe that we need these cross-cultural missionaries, we need to be willing to support them. One of the greatest ways that we can support our missionaries is to go visit them. These encouragement mission trips are difficult for churches that like to dictate the strategy themselves or like to boast about big results, because most of these trips do not have visible, short-term fruit. Churches that are able to do these types of trips are churches that know how to take the long-term, more healthy approach of making disciples.

Partnerships

The long-term, more healthy approach to making disciples as missions happens within partnerships, not one-shot trips to an exotic locale. Many churches participate in 3-5 year partnerships, but there have been very few unreached people groups reached within that time frame. As a matter of fact, statistics show that the vast majority of missionaries to pioneer areas do not even see their first converts until after seven years!

I have been a mission pastor long enough to know that interest in a mission partnership lasts about 3-5 years. That length of time is about the amount of time that it takes to get everyone interested in that locale the opportunity to go. Once interest in the partnership wanes, it is time to move on to the next opportunity. This is Christian tourism! The purpose of the partnership is not reaching the unreached people group or supporting the missionaries. It is getting your congregation interested enough to go, and everything else is second. This is the consumerism that we must be fighting in our churches, but instead we buy into it and call it missions.

Our church does not do 3-5 year partnerships. All of our partnerships are open-ended and evaluated continually. We have one partnership with an unreached people group that has gone for more than 15 years and multiple long-term missionaries. Most of our 16 partnerships are going on 7 years now. It is difficult to maintain interest and get people on trips, but that is not the primary focus. The priority is to see an unreached people group redeemed.

Conclusion

We, both corporately as a church and personally, need to look hard at our motives for going where we are going and why we are going. Long-term, open-ended partnerships with indigenous, reproducing churches among unreached people groups as the end goal with strategy dictated from the field is the ideal. Anything less than that is simply Christian tourism at best and could potentially do long-term harm to future mission efforts. Of course, God can use a random short-term trip to an exotic location, but that gives us no excuse to not work towards the best.








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